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Ches Smith: Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic)

A review of the drummer/vibraphonist/composer's 10th album

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Ches Smith: Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic)
The cover of Interpret It Well by Ches Smith

The curious cover art of drummer/vibraphonist/composer Ches Smith’s 10th album (a 1987 ink-on-paper work by Raymond Pettibon) looks like Japanese kanji gone wrong: railroad tracks and telephone poles disappear in the distance, smoke and fire seem to descend from above. Subterfuge and intuition are at the heart of Interpret It Well.  

Following their performance on his 2016 ECM release The Bell, Smith has reconvened violist Mat Maneri and keyboardist Craig Taborn, joined by guitarist Bill Frisell, to reflect on his minimalist compositions with maximalist improvisations. As he has with various musicians—including Marc Ribot, John Tchicai, Mary Halvorson, and Dave Holland—Smith carries the logic (if not the literal execution) of Haitian vodou drumming to Interpret It Well, bringing something not mesmeric but soulful and seismic to bear.

Throughout the album, subtle sketches are explored and exploded, minimal ideas often turning into cathartic group journeys. The addition of Frisell to Smith’s elastically freaky trio further upends the performances, as the guitarist’s pranks align with Maneri’s twisted, effected viola over Taborn and Smith’s rhythmic fluidity. It’s wickedly playful from start to finish.

Opener “Trapped” is a three-minute rumination preparing the listener for the title track, its playful vibraphone leading to a gentle exorcism of buzzing guitar, buckling drums, careening viola, gong swells, and horror-show piano. Frisell’s solo guitar introduces “Mixed Metaphor,” Maneri tiptoeing in. By the 10-minute mark the quartet is shaking/swinging and assaultive, with ideas looped and repeated for impact, like some reborn King Crimson revising their 1973 masterwork Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. “Clear Major” lurches like drunken dinosaurs; “Deppart” inhales sounds, exhales beauty.


Filmmaker Frank Heath has created a film to go with the title track, available via the Ches Smith and Pyroclastic websites.

Learn more about Interpret It Well at Amazon!

Ches Smith Explores Haitian Vodou Music with We All Break


Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.